No one agrees on what constitutes a good chili. The dish is so personal and loaded with preconceptions that every bowl of red, stewy comfort reflects the style of its maker.
The history of chili, like so many of our iconic dishes, relies a confluence of cultures, local ingredients and trends. It's thought that the original chili was just a pot of meat and chiles seasoned with cumin and garlic. At some point, beans, tomatoes and sweet peppers were stirred in along with a little oregano, cinnamon and cloves. The meat — beef or bison, cubed, shredded or ground — was followed by venison, chicken, turkey and then no meat at all.
There are a few keys to making a great pot of chili, the first being time. I like simmering chunks of meat so they become fork-tender and supple. Beef or bison chuck work beautifully because when cooked low and slow the connective tissue breaks down and turns melt-in-your-mouth perfect. Bison is a great choice for chili — the flavor is rich, yet clean-tasting; it is lower in fat, and just a tad sweeter than beef.
The issue of whether or not to add beans was resolved by the International Chili Society (chilicookoff.com), founded in 1967. The ICS oversees about 150 or so cookoffs per year and has broken the events into several categories: Traditional Red Chili (beef and chiles with no fillers or garnishes); Chili Verde (pork or chicken with tomatillos and green chili powders); and Homestyle Chili (which can contain just about anything, especially beans).
Texas may be the home of chili, but Minnesota boasts its own State Fair version chocked with tomatoes and beans, and seasoned with paprika, cumin, oregano, garlic and onions. However you make it, your chili will be just right for a blustery Minnesota night.
Chili for a Blustery Night
Serves 4 to 6.
Allow yourself plenty of time for the meat to turn fork-tender and lush. This is great with beef chuck and even better with bison, a leaner, cleaner-tasting and slightly sweet meat. The cocoa powder softens the spices while just a dollop of maple syrup gives it a gentle lift. It's great with chips or a hunk of cornbread. From Beth Dooley.
• 1/4 c. ground ancho chili powder
• 1 tbsp. ground chipotle powder
• 2 1/2 tbsp. ground cumin
• 1 tbsp. dried oregano
• 1 tsp. ground coriander
• 1 tsp. cinnamon
• 1/2 c. water
• 4 lb. beef chuck, trimmed of fat, cut into 1-in. cubes
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 4 slices bacon, cut into 1/2-in. pieces
• 1 small yellow onion, chopped
• 6 cloves garlic, smashed
• 2 to 3 jalapeño chiles, cored, seeded, and diced
• 4 to 6 c. beef broth
• 1 1/2 c. beer
• 1 c. canned crushed tomatoes
• 1 tbsp. maple syrup
• 2 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
In a small bowl, whisk together the chili powders, cumin, oregano, coriander and cinnamon. Stir in 1/2 cup water to form a thick paste, set aside. Season the beef with salt and pepper, set aside.
In a large and deep heavy pot or Dutch oven, cook the bacon over medium heat, stirring, until the fat is rendered and the bacon is crisped, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
Increase the heat to medium-high and add the meat. Working in batches, sear the meat until well browned and crusty on all sides, about 4 minutes per batch. Remove to a plate and set aside.
Stir in the onion, garlic and jalapeños and cook until they begin to wilt, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add the chili paste, 4 cups of the broth, beer, tomatoes, maple syrup and cocoa powder. Stir in the bacon and the beef along with any juices. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat to simmer, partially cover and cook the chili, stirring occasionally, until the meat is very tender and the juices have thickened, about 3 hours (adding more broth or water if it seems too low). Taste and adjust the seasoning before serving.
Beth Dooley is the author of "The Perennial Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.